Your passport’s no good

Q: My husband and I recently purchased a package trip for two from Minneapolis to Costa Rica. We paid $3,791, which included accommodations and tickets on American Airlines.

When we arrived at the ticket counter, the American Airlines agent told us that we could not board the airplane because one of our passports would expire in less than six months.

We decided to call off our vacation and immediately advised our travel agency about our change of plans. We later learned that Costa Rica does not have a six-month passport rule; rather, it requires that passports not expire within 30 days of arrival in the country.

I wrote a letter to the airline, and to our travel agency, requesting reimbursement for the cost of our package. Our agency is doing its best to help, but American Airlines has gone into radio silence. Can you help us get through to someone?

– Nancy Dreher, Edina, Minn.

A: It’s unusual for a major airline to go into radio silence. Usually, it just takes time for it to answer your letter. But there are notable exceptions, as faithful readers of this column will probably remember. Fortunately, this isn’t one of them.

When the American Airlines ticket agent checked the entry requirements for Costa Rica, she read in the first paragraph that passports “must have six months validity.” However, that provision applies only to passports held by residents of the Northern Mariana Islands. Below that paragraph is another one, which indicates that all other U.S. passports require only 30 days validity. The ticket agent read the first paragraph and believed that it applied to you, when in fact it didn’t.

“Our agent was incorrect to deny boarding,” airline spokesman Tim Wagner told me.

American is changing its reference material, moving the information pertaining to U.S. citizens higher in the document, so that agents will be less easily confused, and to keep similar errors from being made in the future.

But what about the apparent radio silence? It can take anywhere from six to eight weeks to get a meaningful response from a travel company, and longer if a major holiday intervenes, as it did in your case. In a perfect world, of course, it would take far less time for a company to reply to a customer query.

I’ve been getting many reader questions about passport and visa rules lately, and there seems to be a lot of confusion about what is required and what isn’t. My advice is to visit the U.S. State Department’s Web site before your international trip and read the foreign entry requirements for your country. Then make a printout. If you run into trouble, have it ready.

American Airlines apologized and offered you the opportunity to rebook your trip at no additional charge. Your travel agent also helped you make a claim with your travel insurance company, which reimbursed you for your lost vacation.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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